Route 501 - The Queen Streetcar

Queen Night Shot

ALRV 4213 rockets into Parkside station on the Queensway right-of-way. Located on a bridge over Parkside road, stairs take pedestrians down to street level. Shades of a streetcar subway!

Text by James Bow.

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The Route

Toronto’s centerpiece streetcar route, 501 QUEEN, starts from Long Branch loop on Lake Shore Boulevard near the border with Mississauga. Running east, it serves the main commercial street for the old towns and villages of Long Branch, New Toronto and Mimico before ducking into private right-of-way beneath the Gardiner Expressway and emerging into the Humber Loop interchange.

Exiting the interchange, the line runs east along private right-of-way along the middle of the Queensway, before changing to on-street near Roncesvalles Avenue. After passing Roncesvalles Carhouse, the car follows Queen Street through the old village of Parkdale, the Fashion District, Downtown Toronto, Riverdale, Leslieville, East Toronto and finally into the Beach district, where it loops at Nursewood Road, on the border between the old City of Toronto and the old City of Scarborough. This loop is called Neville loop, even though it is one block east of Neville Park Boulevard.

At 15.4 miles of double track, 501 QUEEN is the longest streetcar route on the TTC, and one of the longest streetcar routes in North America.

The 501 QUEEN streetcar runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, between Long Branch and Neville Park. During the night, the route number changes, from 501 QUEEN to 301 QUEEN NIGHT, although streetcars continue to operate along the same route. During the day, every second car operates between Neville and Humber only. There are a number of other unscheduled short turns during the course of an average day. The 501 QUEEN streetcar is the only route on the TTC where ALRVs operate in base service (ALRVs also operate during certain periods on 511 BATHURST and 504 KING).

Queen Street’s Interurban History

As with streetcar service on Kingston Road, the QUEEN streetcar has its origins in suburban operations. Horse-drawn trams started running on June 9, 1875 along the Kingston Road Tramway (Queen Street east of the Don River was called Kingston Road at this time) from the Don River to gravel pits west of what is today the Kingston Road-Main Street intersection. The passengers were revenue gravy for this railroad, as the operation was set up originally to haul supplies for the Toronto Gravel Road and Concrete Company. The Kingston Road Tramway turned back at the Benlamond Hotel. In 1878, this line was extended east towards Victoria Park.

This horse-drawn service was abandoned following Toronto’s annexation of Riverdale (1884) and the area south of Queen Street from the Don River east to Maclean Avenue (1887). At that time, the Toronto Street Railway pushed its services east of the Don River to the Woodbine (now Greenwood) Racetrack and Lee Avenue. When the Toronto Railway Company assumed the franchise for streetcar service in the City of Toronto in 1891, the service along Queen was remade into the KING route, operating between Lee Avenue and Dufferin Street via Queen and King. Electric service arrived in 1893, along with an extension east to Balsam Avenue in 1894.

At this time, the Beach district was considered ‘cottage country’ for Toronto. Winter service was sparse because it was felt that there were too few year-round residents to justify full service beyond Lee Avenue. Starting in late 1895, though, every second streetcar operated all the way to Balsam Avenue.

Kingston Road and Queen In Conflict

In 1896, the TRC sought to extend streetcar service along Queen to the southern part of the Munro estate, which had been remade into the new Munro Park, which the TRC leased. They also wanted to cross the Neville Park ravine to reach Victoria Park. Already, the TRC owned the Kingston Road suburban service, which operated down Blantyre Avenue to neighbouring Victoria Park. This shouldn’t have caused difficulties, but it did, as the Kingston Road suburban service also held the franchise for Queen Street east of Maclean Avenue. The Village of East Toronto, which had a number of grievances with the Toronto Railway Company (mostly due to fares), decided to make trouble. On July 20, 1897, when the TRC started moving supplies onto Queen Street east of Maclean Avenue, the village organized a ‘posse’ which tossed the rails and ties into a nearby ravine. Cooler heads prevailed, however, and one year later improved service was operating during the summer to a loop in Munro Park.

The TRC wasn’t satisfied with Munro Park, however, and in 1906, General Manager R. Fleming entered into an arrangement with Dominion Parks Company to obtain property between Maclean and Leuty Avenues. Here was set up the Scarboro Beach Park, an ‘electric’ park served exclusively by streetcar. This became a very popular attraction, and it was one of the few properties the TRC retained after the Toronto Transportation Commission took over in 1921. The park lasted until 1925, and has since been filled in with housing. Likewise, Munro Park and Victoria Park were shut down in 1906-07, and subdivided for housing.

As Toronto entered the 1910s, service on Queen Street was split in two. Downtown cars operated to Woodbine, and the single track along Queen Street to Munro Park was handled by stub service. The City eventually stepped in and built a set of double tracks to a wye at Neville Park, allowing through service and night service to begin on December 24, 1914, with every second car turning back at Scarboro Beach.

Neville Park Loop

At the boundary between the old City of Toronto and the old City of Scarborough, ALRV 4237 rests at Neville Loop

The wye at Neville Park, incidentally, is the reason there remained an isolated section of streetcar track running down Neville Park Boulevard until the beginning of the 21st century. After the construction of the loop, the tailtrack from the wye remained, to regulate service. The connection with the Queen trackage was taken away in May 1989, but the track remained visible for years afterward.

The Toronto Transportation Commission Takes Over

On September 1, 1921, the Toronto Transportation Commission acquired responsibility for all TRC operations and set to work improving the streetcar system. By 1923, all service along Queen was run into to the new loop at Neville Park. Service then was renamed BEACH, and operated along a route similar to today’s 501 QUEEN from Humber (via Lake Shore Boulevard) to Neville. In 1928, concurrent with improvements to the MIMICO route, BEACH cars and the Kingston Road-bound QUEEN cars were cut back to a new loop at McCaul Street, overlapping a new LAKE SHORE route which operated along Queen west from Mutual Street.

This arrangement continued into the 1930s when the LAKE SHORE service began to fade from existence. It started on October 28, 1935 when the LAKE SHORE route was split into two near Roncesvalles Avenue, and the LONG BRANCH route, serving the old line from Roncesvalles to Long Branch, came into being. The remainder of the LAKE SHORE service continued to operate between Parkside Loop, just west of the Sunnyside Amusement Park, to Mutual Loop. Then, on November 1, 1936, Sunday and holiday service on the Lake Shore route was discontinued, replaced by a westward extension of the BEACH line to Parkside loop.

Finally, on August 2, 1937, the remainder of the truncated LAKE SHORE service merged into the BEACH route, producing a line running from Neville Park to Parkside Loop. This route was renamed QUEEN. The old QUEEN car became known as the KINGSTON ROAD streetcar. The BEACH name lingered until 1948 on a rush-hour tripper service operating west from Neville loop via Queen and King to loop through downtown Toronto via Church, Wellington and York; after 1948, this service was handed to the KINGSTON ROAD tripper.

In 1957, when road improvements around Sunnyside (and possibly in preparation for the building of the Gardiner Expressway) connected the Queensway with Queen Street, the QUEEN streetcar was moved off Lake Shore Boulevard and onto a high-quality stretch of private right-of-way running to a rebuilt Humber interchange. QUEEN and LONG BRANCH streetcars met at Humber until March 26, 1995, when the 507 LONG BRANCH streetcar was replaced by an extension of the 501 QUEEN route, bringing the 501 QUEEN streetcar to its current alignment.

On February 26, 1966, concurrent with the opening of the BLOOR-DANFORTH SUBWAY and the abandonment of the COXWELL streetcar, the TTC experimented with routing every second QUEEN car along Kingston Road to Bingham loop, in order to maintain streetcar service on Kingston Road during evenings and weekends. Previously, service at these times was handled by the KINGSTON ROAD-COXWELL streetcar operating from Bingham via Kingston Road, Queen and Coxwell to Danforth loop.

Night service on Kingston Road was basically eliminated at this time, but one streetcar would depart from Bingham Loop for Long Branch every Sunday morning at 1:02 AM. As services went, this was probably the most infrequent on the system with one car appearing every 168 hours, but it was the longest single streetcar trip in Toronto, at 15.8 miles. The split-service experiment was not successful, however, failing to meet the travel patterns of Kingston Road residents and contributing to the increasingly unstable operations of the QUEEN car. The QUEEN car returned to its normal route on May 22, 1966.

Starting in 1967, the QUEEN streetcar was served by two-car MU PCC trains operated as they had along the BLOOR streetcar route. This service required reconstruction of Neville and Humber loops. Neville loop was rebuilt with wider turns to allow the two-car trains to operate. Humber loop received a passing track so that two-car trains could be uncoupled as service required. MU trains plied the QUEEN route until February 6, 1977 when increasing congestion and reduced ridership forced the TTC to operate single PCCs instead.

Problems With Reliability and a Grassroots Response

The 501 QUEEN streetcar has long had problems maintaining reliable service. As early as the late 1970s, residents of the Beaches complained that the QUEEN car was being short turned excessively. Quoted one resident in an article for the Toronto Star, “they can get a man to the moon, so why can’t they get a streetcar to Lee Avenue?” Various measures were taken, including slowing down the streetcars and giving them additional time to complete their route. On July 1, 1990, a proof-of-payment fare policy was installed which allowed passengers who had passes or who had already paid their fares (and collected a transfer) to board streetcars at the rear doors, speeding up passenger loadings and streetcar service. Financial losses due to fare evaders caused the TTC to recommend dropping proof-of-payment service, but appeals from grassroots groups such as the Rocket Riders resulted in proof-of-payment being retained, with increased enforcement.

In spite of these changes, problems persisted. As longer ALRV streetcars replaced CLRVs at longer headways and as service was reduced in the mid-1990s due to a system-wide drop in ridership, service gaps on 501 QUEEN became more noticeable and aggravating. Residents of the Beaches complained about waiting as long as a half hour or forty minutes for a streetcar to show up at their stop. When 501 QUEEN absorbed the 507 LONG BRANCH streetcar on March 26, 1995, similar complaints arose around the communities of Long Branch, New Toronto and Mimico.

A grassroots campaign soon launched, bringing together the Rocket Riders, affected residents and officials from the City of Toronto to a series of meetings in 2007 to discuss ways to improving the reliability of the 501 QUEEN service. As a result of these meetings, the TTC hired more route supervisors, to try and ensure cars left their terminals on time. Service disruptions were to be handled with holdbacks, as they are on the subways, rather than with short turns, in order to try and prevent gaps from appearing in the service. A step-back operation at Russell carhouse ensured that streetcar drivers could be spelled off for a break, while their streetcars continued running. Riders reported that service along the line improved as a result, although gaps in service remained a frustratingly a common occurrence. To maintain reliable service within the Beach neighbourhood, additional streetcars or buses were operated on a short shuttle between Russell carhouse and Neville loop.

During the 2007 meetings, proposals were made to split the 501 QUEEN streetcar into shorter routes that overlapped in the downtown core, so that service disruptions weren’t magnified across the entire line. Transit activist Steve Munro suggested that the 507 LONG BRANCH streetcar could be restored, operating between Long Branch Loop and Dundas West station via Lake Shore Boulevard, the Queensway and Roncesvalles outside of rush hours, and down King Street to loop near Church (essentially operating as 508 LAKE SHORE cars) during peak hours.

TTC planners authorized a trial splitting of the 501 QUEEN streetcar for six weeks in 2009. The western branch operated from Long Branch loop via the regular route to Parliament Street, looping via north on Parliament, east on Dundas and south on Broadview. The eastern branch operated from Neville loop to Shaw Street, looping via south on Shaw, west on King and north on Dufferin. In January 2010, the TTC issued a report saying that splitting the route was unsuccessful in preventing short turns, was unpopular with riders, and required more streetcars. Critics argued that the split used was not what they had recommended, and far from the best use of resources. Some feared that the TTC had not given the proposed route split enough of an opportunity to prove itself, and that the experiment had been designed to fail before it began. The TTC is continuing to apply more stringent route management to the 501 QUEEN streetcar, and grassroots groups continue to argue for realignments to improve service, including the reinstatement of the 507 LONG BRANCH streetcar.

The Future

According to the TTC, the 501 QUEEN streetcar carried 43,500 riders per day in 2012, up from 41,200 in 2004. This makes 501 QUEEN the third-most travelled streetcar route on the TTC network, after 504 KING and 510 SPADINA. This does not include the ridership figures for the 502 and 503 KINGSTON ROAD streetcars which carry 6,000 passengers per day on a parallel service. However, this is still far below the crowds the QUEEN streetcar used to be able to carry in its heyday. Transit activists fear that ridership has been depressed due to problems with service reliability have been allowed to fester.

Proposals for a Queen subway or something similar continue to surface from time to time. Most recently, in 2008, the regional transit planning agency Metrolinx placed a line under Queen Street as part of its “most ambitious” regional transportation proposal. The City of Toronto, however, worried that Metrolinx’s proposal to extend the Yonge subway to Richmond Hill could put the line over capacity, passed a resolution asking that the Downtown Relief Line be placed on Metrolinx’s list of priority projects to be built within the next fifteen years. This line might not necessarily go beneath Queen Street, or even replace the 501 QUEEN streetcar, but it would enable commuters from the Beach to get downtown more quickly. Metrolinx now considers the Downtown Relief subway line as a priority, though it doesn’t expect to start building it within the next ten years.

Residents of Long Branch, New Toronto and Mimico continue to campaign for improved service, either through a reinstated 507 LONG BRANCH streetcar, or a service that bypasses Queen Street altogether and heads downtown on private right-of-way paralleling the Gardiner Expressway. In 2007, the City of Toronto proposed just such a route in the form of a Waterfront West LRT, but changing administrations and competing projects have put this on the back burner. Proposals have been made to build a new streetcar loop on the southwest corner of Lake Shore Drive and Park Lawn, which could allow the the TTC to extend its scheduled 501 QUEEN short turn service west from Humber Loop to Park Lawn, along a private right-of-way, doubling the level of service for a number of new condominiums that have gone up in east Mimico. Construction of such a loop was planned for the summer of 2009, but taken off the books due to budget shortfalls. However, local residents continue to campaign.

Things look like they may change for the 501 QUEEN streetcar in the near-to-medium future. Whether or not its various extremities are lopped off to find new and more reliable ways downtown, it is expected that streetcars will continue to ply the length of Queen Street. Service along this street is, to some, the heart and soul of streetcar operations in Toronto.


501 Queen Image Archive


References

  • Bromley, John F., and Jack May Fifty Years of Progressive Transit, Electric Railroaders’ Association, New York (New York), 1978.
  • Corley, Raymond F., ‘Beach Car Lines Reach Back 120 Years’, Rail and Transit, September 1995, p4-5, The Upper Canada Railway Society, Toronto (Ontario).
  • Stamp, Robert M., Riding the Radials: Toronto’s Suburban Electric Streetcar Lines, The Boston Mills Press, Erin (Ontario), 1989.

Thanks to Ray Corley for his corrections to this web page.

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